Merry Christmas from the Johnsons’

Our family Christmas letter:

Being that it was over 2,000 years ago, I realize I’m stating the blatantly obvious when saying that much has changed in our world since the birth of Jesus.  It’s hard for me to gain true perspective on the enormity of change within one year of this life of ours, not to mention from 2,000 years prior to present-day.  The vast difference between then and now begs the question;  what if Jesus were born today?  How might people react and how would the news be shared?  

I imagine the wise men on a group chat discussing what gift each will bring to present to this small child.  I see hundreds standing before the creche, phones in hand, clamoring among one another to get the best picture.  Thousands of people’s opinions and thoughts on the announcement of his birth would be tweeted, texted and liked before he woke up enough to set eyes on his mother and father for the first time.  Like much else these days, I would guess sharing the news would overshadow the importance of the news itself.

The miracle hidden within this passage of time is the truth that remains forever constant in our world of change.  Jesus was born.  And with His birth came reason for the rest of us to live.  And with His death came reason for not one of us to fear our own.  Of course there is a lot that happens between those two major events.   There is joy, sadness, achievements, struggles, immense growth and change.  And through it all, we know this baby came into this world as one of us so he could relate, sympathize, empathize, walk beside us and carry us when needed.  There is such an element of peace within this one whole and perfect gift, and I love when our world slows down just enough to celebrate His birth.

As anyone with teenagers knows, the word “constant” is perhaps one of the last adjectives one might use to describe these interesting and fragile creatures.  Pant sizes change overnight, moods fluctuate more rapidly than our waistlines this time of year and by the time we parents have a grasp of current interests, they are on to the next bigger and better thing out there.  

TJ turned 14 in November and has officially surpassed me in height.  Just the other day he commented that it seems strange when he hugs me “now that he is bigger than me” (excuse me while I grab a tissue…).  I’m grateful to say his confidence continues to grow as well and, as turbulent and confusing as these teenage years can be, TJ is standing on solid ground and surrounds himself with a great group of friends with whom he shares many adventures.  He continues to bring music into our home with each new song he masters on his electric guitar and is now looking to learn some acoustic songs as well. With this school year already half over, thoughts are looming of high school to come next year, a driver’s permit in another year and a half and this world of independence expanding by the minute.  As I am forced to let go more and more, my prayers grow ever more fervent in asking the Lord to draw near.

While I may still have about an inch or so on Noah, his growth has been enormous this year.  He ventured on to middle school and is transitioning to this new and independent world with great success.  Aside from the social benefits of attending school, there is little else Noah appreciates about getting up at the crack of dawn and heading off to sit in a classroom all day.  Joe and I continue to wonder how soon we can pull him away from the drudgery of this more common path of education and plop him right into a tech firm where we know he will eventually end up.  He continues to spend hours on his computer mastering various graphic design programs and entertaining us all with his creations.  If he only had the same amount of patience and perseverance when it came time to pick up his room…

Mary started full-day Kindergarten this year and is absolutely thriving.  She is developing a firm understanding of many introductory concepts, is reading several “sight” words, knows how to spell and write her name and even brought her favorite book into class and read it to all her classmates.  We continue to go to speech therapy twice a week and she is making incredible strides with both her language and speech.  Just recently, a photographer at the center took pictures of her during one of her speech sessions and his comment captures her perfectly, “her face in EVERY shot is fierce determination.”  God has so beautifully lined up His angels to care for Mary and ensure the potential He blessed her with is fulfilled (and most likely, surpassed).  We are grateful beyond words.  

My life has changed significantly this year, as for the first time in fourteen years, my “hours” have been cut and I find myself wondering (anxiously) what God has planned next.  He says, “Be still” and I say, “for how long?” While I wait for word on my next assignment, I am having a lot of fun writing bi-weekly posts on my blog, “Joy in the Journey” and am also blessed to be a monthly contributor for catholicmom.com. I am so thankful for the interest of my readers and the thoughts and comments that are shared. Through it all, I pray my presence right where I am at is a constant my family continues to count on.

Joe has logged one of his busiest years yet.  Among his hours at the office, he was assistant coach for Noah’s soccer team, has been heavily involved in our homeowner’s association, serves on a technical review committee for our town and joined forces with me to serve on the Board for Bethany Christian Services, the adoption agency through which we were blessed with Mary-Rose.  Our greatest blessing on the workfront is his ability to work in the New Hampshire office three days a week.  Rather than spending two hours commuting to and from the office, he spends that time with us; priceless.

Just last week I came across some of the boys old “wish lists” for Christmas.  It was bittersweet to read through these lists of toys that marked each stage of their growth.  It’s true; much has changed.  And there is much this mother’s heart worries about as we travel further down this uncertain path to adulthood.  I admit there are moments when I want to make a u-turn and head back to the stage when the ‘Wiggles’ were cool and the most violent part of their video games involved Mario jumping on the heads of mushrooms and flattening them like pancakes.  

We are raising our children in a world that seems to grow more confusing by the day.  The enormity of social media leaves me feeling both fascinated and completely overwhelmed.  It’s true that if Jesus was born today, news of his birth would be spread instantly and the peace within the manger would have most likely been disrupted with thousands of people having been immediately informed of his presence.  In the end, whether the news of His birth is tweeted, shared on Facebook or simply spread among the words of the shepherds and wise men, the news is exciting, true and lasting;

                                          Jesus is born, Merry Christmas.

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Finding Our Home in the Manger

If my mom hadn’t taken me by the arm to gently pull me aside, I could have very well tripped right over him.  Never would I have expected it necessary to watch my step for someone sleeping on the side of the road.  I remember looking behind me to be sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me.  I was disheartened to realize I had in fact seen a grown man, cuddled up in a ball, seemingly asleep right in the street.  He had positioned himself over one of the vents in the road through which the heat from the subway below makes it way up and out of the underground.

It was my first trip to New York City and my sisters and I were enjoying a weekend filled with wonder as we took in the dazzlingly decorated sites of the Big Apple.  We were treated to excursions to all the popular tourists attractions, including a horse and buggy ride to the theater district in which we saw the famous Christmas Spectacular.  By the time we made our way back to our hotel that evening, it was dark and it was cold.  I held tight to my mother’s hand and allowed her to lead my step as my mind was still absorbing all that we had seen and done over the past few days.  I was all but entranced in a state of awe; the sparkle of the lights and the energy of the streets captivating me in a world where it seemed all was well.  The site of the man asleep in the street was an un-welcomed awakening, it was the unveiling of a dark secret the city had done so well to hide behind the bright lights and warm experiences of the past few days.

I was young and I was naive.  I remember simply asking my mom why this man was asleep in the street, as if it had just been a silly decision on his part.  The vision of this man stuck with me and left me completely unable to reconcile the vast difference between his world and mine.

The beginning of Advent means its time to once again bring the bins up from the basement and transform our home to reflect the beauty of the season.  Nothing brings the season to life in our home quite like the manger scene.  The tree is beautiful, the decorations fun, but the manger scene denotes the true meaning of the celebration to come.  The tradition has always been to wait until Christmas morning to place baby Jesus in the cradle.  As the youngest in my family, it was always my special honor to place the baby in the creche.  It has become our tradition to bring our three children before the manger each Christmas morning to sing Happy Birthday to baby Jesus and allow our youngest to place Him in the arms of his mother before glimpsing the treasures hidden beneath the tree.

In contrast to what we have always known, the Bishop of our diocese, Bishop Libasci of Manchester, has set out a decree of sorts asking that the focus of the Advent Season this year be on the Christ child himself.  All have been encouraged to display baby Jesus in our mangers and spend the Advent Season reflecting on His place in our lives.  As Bishop Libasci describes, “What is being asked is that during Advent we take the infant (Jesus) as our centerpiece, remembering that He came as one of us.”

Reflecting on the scene before me as I position each character in place, I realize that, all those years ago, when baby Jesus was born in a dark, cold cave, there wasn’t much difference between the circumstances of his simple existence and that of the homeless man sleeping in the street.

So often I’ve wondered what it would be like to be homeless.  How many times in my life have I said, “I just can’t wait to get home.”  The physical structure of a house offers escape from so many things.  It is a place to come in out of the cold, or out of the rain, safety in a storm, protection from the elements.  It is a place to sit, have a meal, refresh and ready yourself for the next adventure that awaits.  And of course the home within the house provides that place where even the worst day can melt away, where you can find comfort unattainable anywhere else, escape from the busyness of the outside world, and be loved just for being yourself.

Not being one to question tradition, I’ve never before taken the time to reflect on the significance of the manger scene without the baby Jesus.  A closer look reveals the emptiness within.  Without the presence of Jesus, it is just a cold, dark cave.  It is a woman preparing to give birth among the stench of animals and the filth of their surroundings.  It is a man, frustrated and unable to find room for his wife in any of the finer accommodations throughout the city.  It is dark and full of fear.  The shepherds have no reason to have left their flock and the wise men seem to have been deceived by the guidance of the star.  It is full of people but void of life.

Place the baby Jesus in the manger and everything changes.  It is warm.  It is inviting.  A refuge unlike any other has been created and it all exists within the tiny body of this precious infant.  The fear is gone, the peace is real.  The anxious hearts of the shepherds have been quieted and the wise men find the purpose of their travels.  Hope has been birthed and joy has been found.

There is a connection between the baby in the manger and the homeless man on the street, and it goes well beyond the place of poverty they both find themselves in.  While one may never be able to reconcile the harsh life of the homeless, the despair of the refugee, the pain of the victim of cruel and senseless violence, or the sickness of our loved one, the truth that is hidden within all of the suffering is that Jesus is the home in which we are invited to take refuge.  Our personal invitation was extended the moment He entered the world,  it remains today and will hold true for all eternity.  He is our protection from the storm around us, the hope for the hopeless, the light for those encapsulated in a world of darkness.

There is a song I love by Building 429, titled, “Where I belong”.  The refrain presents a unique lesson in the words, “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong.  Take this world and give me Jesus; this is not where I belong.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he32vwlKQPY

It is true that this world was never meant to be Heaven on earth.  We get pieces of Heaven through our loved ones and our experiences, but our real home awaits and all the gifts within are held in the heart of that sweet baby in Bethlehem.

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